Joy LadinPhotos by Stephanie Keith

Gender is a covenant I have broken: a covenant with others and a covenant with myself.

“Did anyone ever teach you to be true to yourself?” a therapist once asked me. I had come to her in the midst of what I call my gender crisis — the physical, mental, and emotional breakdown I experienced after 40-plus years of living as the male I knew I wasn’t. I had just told her about my shame about hiding for decades my lifelong sense that I was female. Having failed to keep faith with my own gender identity, how could I now break my covenant with my wife, my children, and all who knew me as a man?

Joy Ladin

Gender is a covenant, a promise that the maleness or femaleness we present in public represents both our genitalia and our gender identity, our private sense of whether we are male or female. People who visibly fail to keep this covenant, those we call “transgender,” are subject to severe penalties: exile from family and friends, loss of employment, and verbal and physical abuse. Every week, one or two transgender Americans are killed, in a hate crime, for breaking the covenant of gender.

Most of us are literally born into the covenant of gender, when those who deliver us from our mothers’ wombs examine our genitals and proclaim, “It’s a boy!” or, “It’s a girl!” My body entered me into the covenant as male, and, for 45 years, that is the way I presented myself to the world. But though my gender presentation matched my genitalia, I was still breaking the gender covenant, because the maleness I presented to others didn’t reflect my own sense of who I was.

Joy Ladin

Transsexuality — the mismatch between physical sex and gender identity — causes many kinds of suffering; for me, one of the worst was the guilt and shame I felt about pretending to be a man. Those feelings drove me to confess to my college sweetheart, the woman I later married, that I was transgender when we were sophomores in college. She offered me a private version of the gender covenant: As long as I lived as a man, she would love and stay with me, even though she knew my gender identity was female. That was the first gender covenant I could keep, for it meant that at least in one relationship, I could meet the expectation of others without betraying my sense of self.

For the next two decades, I kept this covenant: to be true to my wife, and, later, to our children, by living as a man. I wrote and published poetry, gave divrei Torah and served on the board of our local nondenominational synagogue, completed a doctorate, and finally landed a tenure-track job at the Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University, where I taught, and still teach, writing and American literature. In short, I became what we call “a successful man,” which in my case referred to the lines on my C.V. but not to my success at living, loving, writing, and teaching as a man. If I had really been that man, I could have lived happily ever after within the terms of the gender covenant. Instead, I became steadily more miserable; by my early 40s, it literally, physically, and emotionally made me sick to live as a man.

Joy Ladin

Most people — the vast majority whose physical sex matches their gender identities — don’t realize that “covenant” applies to gender until they see someone like me breaking it. Then, they tend to be angry. Some people have told me that my gender transition is pathologically selfish; having lived as a male for 45 years, why couldn’t I keep living as a man for the sake of my wife and children? Others have become angry at my now-ex-wife for not staying with me through and despite my transition.

The moral value of a covenant can be measured by how we respond when it is broken. When the Israelites at Sinai broke their brand-new covenant with God (constructing the golden calf), the responses — Moses’ passionate pleas for divine presence and God’s forgiveness and revelation of the thirteen attributes of mercy — resulted in a greater understanding and a deeper mutual relationship between God and Israel. When the covenant of gender is broken, the responses — blaming, shaming, victim-villain narratives — tend to mirror rather than to expand the narrow binary terms of the gender covenant.

Joy Ladin

My experience with breaking this covenant has taught me to strive not just for a more embracing, nonbinary conception of gender, but for a more embracing, nonbinary moral language — a language that acknowledges suffering, and the need for growth and forgiveness, on all sides. My transition has not only been from an inauthentic life as a man to an authentic life as a woman. It has also been from a gender covenant based upon physical sex and social convention to a new gender covenant in which gender doesn’t mean being male or female, but being true to others by becoming our truest selves.

Reprinted with permission from the journal Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas May 2013, as part of a larger conversation on rethinking covenants.

Share Your Reflection



Excellent program with a different slant on the transgender issue by placing in the context of "covenant". I really enjoyed it and wish Joy all the best in her continuing journey.

Thank you for your courage, Joy Ladin! I believe that being truthful to our original, God-given self-covenant is the only way that we can make and maintain the more outward covenants that are part of a human life.

You are beautiful.

Before you were a "man", before you were a "woman", you were "human".

during and after

so sweet

What a wonderful woman! (And I like your voice too. So there.)

This interview (on the morning radio program, ON BEING) was one of the best I have heard. Having recently met a transgendered person, I was validated in referring to "her" as I instinctively did, but not really knowing at that time how to properly refer to a transgendered individual. Thanking you so much for bringing this human issue to the forefront.

You are beautiful, not only in the way you present but in your eyes. I have been female bodied by whole life, to me there is a great difference between the people who look me up and down and call me beautiful and the people that will look into my eyes down to my soul and see the beauty there. I am so proud of you for having the courage to become true to yourself allow the beauty in your soul to shine through.

Thank you for so effectively communicating about your life, specifically your gender transformation. You sound like a good person, a person I would want to know.

Thank you for so effectively communicating about your life, specifically your gender transformation. You sound like a good person, a person I would want to know.

Coming from a seasoned fan of Speaking of Faith, this is by far the best interview I've heard with Krista Tippett. Joy Ladin you are hope and light in the heart of humanity. What a beautiful person to be.

Another ground breaking program that should be required listening in every High School in the world. Transgender is not a "choice" such as L,G, & B are: it is a byproduct of environmental pollution caused by industrialization. I have known a few transgender people in my lifetime: sadly, most of them did not survive. Appalled at the mistreatment they endure. I have more respect for them than any other humans on this planet. Those that are still with us are stronger than all of us combined. Joy's name was choosen wisely. Wish you well on your journey................................M

A lovely, lovely interview! You look *marvelous!* And I hope you're claiming and reclaiming color in your life.

I think you are incredibly brave and honest. Whenever we decide to follow our own truth we take tremendous risk. Few people have the chutzpah to take the leap into the dark. We live at a unique moment in time where an individual can be true to their inner truth.

Thank you for this profouund essay. God bless you and yuor family.

Thank you for your story. I'm so glad you're getting to live your authentic life. (((HUGS))) You are an inspiration, not only to transgendered people, but to all people, to be true to ourselves. Thank you, again.

My dad courageously transgendered at the age of 73. Once living as a woman, she was sooooo happy and peaceful and her loving spirit flourished. I lost her two years ago to a stroke, but she was able to live for six years as the person she always wanted to be. I think "love" is truly the seamless covenant we are challenged to keep.

Wow. I transitioned when I was 59 yrs old. Sally you are amazing as well.

Bless you; may you continue to experience true Joy as you continue along your journey..

This was engaging to read and emotionally stirring, I thank you for sharing this with everyone. I am most thankful to read the experience of a trans person of the Jewish faith, something I have never had to the chance to hear before. You bravery and your commitment to yourself are inspirational on a molecular level.

I've been reading about Joy's ex-wife, Christine, and her own memoir about surviving the breakup of her marriage. I was disturbed at what seems to be a silencing of her voice, and I was also disturbed about the the many online comments that vilified Joy. I would love to hear a conversation with Christine about her experiences, or at least hear Joy speak about his reaction to his wife's book. I see both sides of their story, and I plan to read both of their memoirs. I send my blessings out to both and their children.

Thank you Annette for your interest, compassion and blessings. I have never been involved in, and am strongly opposed, to any silencing of my ex's memoir, though I'm not aware of any. Her book has been published and promoted by a major publisher, and excerpted by The Guardian and other publications. I recently did an interview for Helen Boyd's website en / Gender (she posted an interview with Chris several months ago) in which I respond to her questions about Chris's memoir. You can read it here: .

So grateful for Joy Ladin's courage to honor her authentic self, even when it meant breaking the covenanted expectations of others. She is brave, and I look forward to teaching my children about her when they're older. I want my children to know that their genitals don't dictate who they're supposed to be, or whether I will love them.

Joy. So so true. Sorry i wont see you in Winnipeg. Actually New York is closer to Toronto.

Thank you so much for your story, your courage, your beauty, which truly is deep and your belief in the covenant of love. My heart, prayers and thoughts are with you for your continuing journey into a fruitful, joy-filled life!

Joy:Thank you for taking the risk to be your true self!

I deeply respect and am awed by your courage.

Wow! Thank you Joy...for your honesty and courage. I 'esteem' you....

I only wish I had your courage and support system. :-( 59 and still living falsely as a man.

It troubles me that virtually every discussion about transgendered individuals centers exclusively on their triumphant resolution of their perceived problem, and the assumption that in order to be loving and loyal, their spouse must stay in that marriage. I had the same reaction to all stories about male-to-female Jennifer Boylan, where the wife Deedie is presented as being the good wife because she stayed married despite not being a lesbian and not wanting to be married to a woman and subverting her own desires in so doing. NPR's Story Corps had a story in 2012 about Les and Scott GrantSmith, in which the wife became a man, and the husband stayed.

It seems there is only one "acceptable" way to react to one's spouse changing genders, and that is to (cue Tammy Wynette) stand by your man. The spouses of transgendered people are apparently supposed to tolerate the end of their sex lifes as they know it, and utterly give of themselves for the benefit of their partner's discovery of self, in order to keep the family together. No one has the same expectation when a partner comes out as gay or has an affair or otherwise undergoes some large transformation, but the push to accept the notion of transgender individuals and the process has meant a distinct flattening of the acceptable reactions on the individual levels to simply delighted acceptance, no matter what the emotional toll may be on those who are left behind by these "journeys of self." I also think it is troubling, given the controversial public behavior of this contributor, that Christine Benvenuto's voice is not seen as important, because she did not stay married to the person who was her husband. I am disappointed in On Being for covering this issue in such a one-dimensional fashion. It's not much of a conversation when only one view is allowed.

I am really enjoying these articles. I hop out of bed early Sunday to hear "On Being," too. I studied religion at Temple University in Philadelphia (1988-1991). Krista reminds me of what is most important to me when I am dealing with the stresses of daily life, particularly economic transitions. What a relief to read these pages. I want to respond to everything I hear but I am not one for being on the computer. I feel as if I have been to my Quaker Meeting after I hear the show, and it enriches Meeting for me when I do get to go. I liked Joy's article. It was helpful. I have worked as a volunteer with several transgendered or sexual children. There is no doubt to me that this condition is very real and the children need our compassion and acceptance.

An outstanding program with two gifted women.

Wow, I have a whole new understanding through Joy of what it means to be transgender.

I am filled with compassion for Joy's (and Christine's) struggle. But something saddens me.

Joy has done many things to her body (dare I say mutilation?) to get it to the point where she feels she can truly call herself female. But why can't she leave her healthy body alone and choose to behave and adorn herself however she wants? There are millions of people who are trapped in bodies that don't allow them to be their true inner selves. Whether someone has gender issues, suffers from a chronic illness, lost a limb in combat, is obese or is just plain ugly; our bodies do not have to define us.

"My transition has not only been from an inauthentic life as a man to an authentic life as a woman. It has also been from a gender covenant based upon physical sex and social convention to a new gender covenant in which gender doesn’t mean being male or female, but being true to others by becoming our truest selves."

Why allow gender binary to define us? By going to such great lengths to make the body conform to perceived gender covenants, aren't we just confirming and validating those archaic notions? Why couldn't Joy have just changed her name and started wearing dresses without mutilating herself? Because that transition wouldn't have been accepted socially perhaps? As if this one IS accepted?

It's not that I am against gender reassignment. I am against risky, costly, unnecessary and (dare I say this?) ineffective medical intervention.

I can only speak for myself, as each person has their own path. I will try to shed some light on your questions. I know for a cisgender person it is sometimes difficult to conceive of gender identity as being different from sex (genitalia). Many are only now coming to the realization that one's sexual orientation is not always congruent with one's gender identity and/or sex either.

Surgeries such as SRS (vaginoplasty) are not "mutilations", they are medically necessary surgeries to correct a genital birth defect in a person whose physical brain matches their gender identity. Transition is not a choice it is an imperative. it may be held at bay for a time, but when it is time, it is a matter of life as their true self or dying wearing the mask of someone they never were.

I know of no one who transitions to "become a woman or man". Transition is about bringing the physical body into congruence with the existing gender identity of the physical, natal, organic, biological, brain. Because gender identity is hardwired during our time in utero (unlike gender roles and gender expectations which are social constructs) we cannot change gender identity (just as we cannot change sexual orientation) because that would require a type of brain surgery that hasn't been developed. These people always were the gender identity they KNOW themselves to be.

Transition is not about "adorning" or "mannerisms". It is not done to fit in. Many who transition never feel they will fit in. It is about bringing to body into congruence to complete oneself. People don't transition to look good for someone else. Many people do get reconstructive surgeries for other conditions as well. Often their emotional well-being is crucial in that as much as the physical.

I don't see Joy or any other trans person as allowing the gender binary to define them. Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation, and Physical Sex each exist across a separate spectrum or continuum. Joy and others bring their bodies into congruence with their own selves. She and others of transsexual history are not transitioning to have their bodies conform to perceived gender covenants. Transition is for the person not the culture, society, or gender binary.

It isn't about names and dresses... it isn't about whether or not society accepts them. The clothes are worn because that is what others around them with the same presentation are wearing, there is no particular attachment to the clothes any more than a cis person would have for their favorite outfit. Even in a world of perfect acceptance of gender identity, a person of transsexual history would still have the need for congruence.

In closing, yes the surgery is risky as all surgery is, yes it is costly because it is an involved procedure and there are not that many specialists performing it. It is NOT unnecessary and it has been shown to be an overwhelming success both in physical aesthetics and in the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of the person.

Just my 2¢, but I hope that answers some of the questions.

Joy has not had any sex-reassignment surgery and doesn't intend to.

LOVE this, thank you for being you, and thank you On Being for introducing her to us!

I am right there with Esmerelda's post -- the story of Ladin's transformation is all about him. Since this aired I have read much by Ladin and Ladin's ex-wife. I listen to Krista's shows and read the newsletter and have never once doubted the veracity of the stories. But right now I feel duped.

This could be psychosis. But, to be kind, it's probably just another form of OCD. For those of you out there with children, you know a "child's logic" is an oxymoron. You put a sensitive boy in the wrong circumstances at the right time and anything can happen. And when a brain circuit gets wired in a certain way at a young age (as a coping mechanism?), it's hard to shake. Wish-dreaming about being a fireman, teacher, basketball player, dancer, doctor? Sure. Yearning to be Asian when you're African, or a female when you're a male? What's that all about? Unhealthy, illogical fixation at an early age. In this case, the fixation seems to be on the "externals" of being a female. Being born a male, Joy Ladin knew nothing about the "internals" of being a female, and she probably never will. Yet through castration, hormones, et al. she can have some sort of inner peace. Okay, I get that. But why do we have to buy into this as a good thing? It's pathological self-indulgence. Society is not well-served by the acceptance and promotion of transsexuality as a solution to anything.

Thank you Joy Ladin, I listened to the audio several weeks ago and I have read these words over and over to let them sink in deeply, to hear your pain and courage, even as a sophomore in college telling your sweetheart truthfully. I want to get this part of being human. I will continue to read your words that keep instructing me about our shared humanity. Thank you so much!
I look at women from a distance in a new way now. I watch their hands and eyes as I'm sure you are and will to take in all of what it is to be female.

Thank you Ann, and to all of you who have responded with such empathy and understanding. Thank you too to those of you who were prompted by my story to do more reading and thinking about these difficult issues.

I too was deeply moved by this story and commend Joy for her courage. but to say that this interview was one-sided is silly. Does this show now required two guests per episode, so both sides of every issue can be examined? Certainly On Being listeners should get that life and relationships are not a zero sum game, not black and white, not a situation of right and wrong. The human experience is far too nuanced and complex and vast for that small understanding. If Joy confessed to her future wife in college that her genitals belied her gender orientation, Christine was warned, so to speak. AND her voice and experience is just as valid as Joy's and should not be silenced, but this episode was not about Christine. Perhaps a future episode will be, or perhaps Christine will tell her story on a different radio program.

To those who feel the need to project their discomfort with Joy's transition by calling her selfish or pathological-- YOU CANNOT POSSIBLY UNDERSTAND IF YOU HAVE NOT EXPERIENCED. If you have not lived in another person's body, you have no clue what is true about their moment to moment existence. Marriages fall apart for nefarious reasons every day. This is not a nefarious reason. I have no doubt that this was the most difficult thing that her family has ever gone through, however, all involved parties are still alive. Still have their health. Still have each other. The kids still have two parents. Two parents who are no longer living a lie.
And can I just say that it was NOT lost on me the aural connotations of Joy's new name. Joy Ladin. Joy-Laden. How great that upon introducing herself, signing her name, etc., she can always be reminded of our birthright to be filled with joy. Blessings!

Right on Ashley. I also appreciate the explanation of the necessity for some to have the genitalia operation. While it's necessary in life to make judgements in order to understand what one believes, it's also necessary to allow others their beliefs.

Thank you Kristen for "On Being". The program has been invaluable to me this year.

Hello Joy,
my twin "brother" and my father both identify as female. You are not weird. You are right! When other people aren't ready to let others be whomever they want to be....that's when vanity begins expressing itself. But I do agree that the highest vanity is personal vanity. It doesn't mean that we have to be something else just to make them happy. It means that the highest responsibility is to live as yourself. As purely and without regrets as possible. Love,

I like much of what she has to say minus the religious nonsense. The argument would be stronger without the crutch of religion

This resonated deeply with me, Joy. One of my closest friends is transgender. She has endured much, lost much, and yet is found in her Knowing and acceptance of her truest and most authentic self. She is a beautiful and precious human being and I am blessed to know and love her. May you bloom, Dani

The pain it took to remain closed in a bud
became greater than the risk it took to blossom
Anias Ninn

How could being a male or a female be a covenant? Webster's dictionary defined "covenant" as, "A binding agreement made by two or more persons or parties." When a woman gives birth to a baby, it is either a boy or a girl. The baby has no choice. In the beginning, God created a male and a female! However, when the boy or girl becomes of age, a choice is made to become whatever he or she wants to be! This is a distortion of God's original creation. Does a baby enters into a binding agreement in the womb with the father and mother to be a male or a female or something else?

This is a beautifully portrayed aspect of Transgender and it does point out that to a non-trans spouse, we are being selfish and should consider our families.
This is all very well, but, we are doing everyone a major disservice in staying as we are, we seriously operate at what I, as a Transwoman can only describe as a living hell for us.
There does come the time when we CANNOT keep going as this other person.